'Knock'ing on Success's Door

Jess R. Burkle ’06 was working for a production in France last summer when he stumbled upon the inspiration for his senior thesis in an Avignon bookstore. The Harvard theater veteran fell in love with “Knock,” a classic French comedy by Jules Romain, upon first reading. The play follows the rise to power of the villainous Dr. Knock against the backdrop of medical hysteria in a small French town.

Surprised by its lack of renown in the United States, he set about researching its history and adapting the script for American viewers, using more colorful, conversational language.

Burkle’s creation—which will serve as the culmination not only of his academic career as a French Language and Literature concentrator, but also of four years spend immersed in the world of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC)—will debut tonight on the Loeb Mainstage.

Burkle emphasizes his efforts to make the play relevant and interesting to Harvard audiences, claiming that “with all the germophobia and hand sanitizers and chiropractors of our modern century, it seems an update of [the play] would be necessary.”

Made up of an ensemble cast, “Knock” features interactions between townspeople and the new doctor, centering around the dynamic title character portrayed by Julia C. Chan ’05. Though most productions feature a male Dr. Knock, second-time director Burkle wasn’t concerned with gender when casting the part. According to Burkle, gender is hardly relevant for a “virus” like Knock.

“We basically cast the best person for the part,” Burkle explains. “I loved the character of Dr. Knock, this mysterious doctor who comes in with evil, giant plans to take over the world. I needed someone who was captivating and who could have that power. Julia was it. She blew us away at auditions.”

Chan hopes to bring “a sort of androgynous, ambiguous” aspect to the protagonist that will make her a more frightening and universal figure. Though other characters in the play are “flamboyant” and “outrageous,” she describes Knock as “very normal,” and has chosen to play him as naturally as possible.

“I want him to have a strangeness and a realness. The whole picture is more frightening because he’s actually a normal guy and he really believes what he’s doing is the right thing,” she says.

The University College of London transfer has previously portrayed female characters much “closer to home” in “Lulu” and “The Vagina Monologues.” The role of Knock, the first villain Chan’s portrayed for Harvard audiences, has been “challenging and a lot of fun.”

“I love playing a villain,” says Chan. “It’s so much fun. It’s amazing what kind of emotions you can give up from inside when you’re trying to play an evil character.”

The joy Chan describes in working with a sinister script seems to have held true for the cast as a whole, who stayed in Cambridge over spring break to put together the first Mainstage show of the spring. Burkle describes their vacation spent rehearsing like summer camp, insisting that participants “have a lot of laughs and inside jokes and a collective experience. It’s fun because there’s no school and we really get to focus on the project.”

“It’s always a challenge to give up your spring break,” admits producer Aileen K. Robinson ’08. “We all have papers or homework that we could be doing. But we choose to do this and that’s the amazing thing about it.”

Spring break allowed the crew to complete set and costume designs reflecting Burkle’s creative vision, including a giant medical contraption that is revealed in act three as the backdrop for Knock’s monologues. But many of the set design’s specifics remain veiled in secrecy.

“There’s crazy surprises in the third act we can’t tell you about,” says Executive Producer and former HRDC President John Drake ’06, only revealing that one post-intermission gag involves 150 jars and ping pong balls. Burkle will only say of the set that it draws inspiration from what he calls “one of the most frightening experiences in medicine.”

And though he seems to revel in such stunts, Burkle insists that “Knock” doesn’t simply revolve around spectacle. The play is not only a farce but also a satire, and as such “Knock” poses broader questions about the will to power and the nature of authority.

“With all these gags and poop jokes that you have, there’s a layer underneath talking about faith in figures, blindly following others, and accepting power without question. It’s very interesting and applicable to politics, religion, education, parenting…everything.”

—Staff writer Lena Chen can be reached at